The first special election primary of the cycle is behind us now. In NC-03, in the race to replace Rep. Walter Jones, Jr., former Greenville Mayor Allen Thomas handily won the Democratic primary with just over 50% of the vote. On the Republican side, state Representative Greg Murphy and Joan Perry, both doctors, will face off in a primary in July. Murphy led by 3,000 votes but in the crowded field, he only had 22%, leaving the second primary highly competitive.  

On the Republican side, Perry received backing from several outside groups. In particular, a new group, Winning for Women, that is trying to elect more Republican women to Congress got behind her. It’s a test for them and could be huge victory if they can lift a first-time candidate over a sitting legislator. The Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life group that sees itself as the counterpart to EMILY’s List, also backed Perry. 

The big loser, besides all of the candidates who didn’t make the run-off, was Club for Growth. They backed Celeste Cairns who finished 9thin the crowded field. Back in 2016, the group helped Ted Budd win a similarly contested primary in NC-13, leading to Budd’s election to Congress in the general election.

Conventional wisdom holds that a Republican will win the general election in September in a walk. The district has been solidly Republican for 25 years. As somebody posted on twitter yesterday, even Secretary of State Elaine Marshall lost the district by double digits back in 2016. By all rights, Republicans should hold the seat.

However, Allen Thomas brings a different resume to the race. He’s well-known and well respected by leaders of both parties across the district. His brother is district attorney of Craven, Carteret and Pamlico Counties, all counties in the district. His father represented the area in the state Senate long ago and Thomas was a popular mayor of Greenville. He’s also served as head of the Global Transpark in Kinston. While a critical audit was released just prior to the election, people in the region give him high marks for his leadership.

Thomas fits the profile of the traditional conservative Democrat that once ruled that part of the world. His ties are deep and his commitment to both eastern North Carolina and public service are beyond dispute. In a low turnout election, he makes the best candidate Democrats could offer. If it’s possible for a Democrat to win, he’s the one who can do it. 

To actually pull off an upset in NC-03, though, Thomas will probably need to change the make-up of the electorate. Democrats would be wise to use the race as a dry run for 2020. They can try new technology and tactics to put more Democrats into the polls. The turnout in the general will be small, probably less than 100,000 people, and a hefty field operation could narrow the GOP advantage. Even if they can’t get enough voters to the polls to pick up the seat, they could better learn their what’s possible and what is not. 

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